Storm clouds over the Aegean

JOHN BIERMAN April 6 1987

Storm clouds over the Aegean

JOHN BIERMAN April 6 1987

Storm clouds over the Aegean


The Aegean Sea, cradling the legendary islands of Greek antiquity, has long been known to seafarers as a region of sudden and ferocious storms. Last week, a geopolitical storm blew up which threatened to engulf the region in war—and in the eye of the storm was a Canadian oil exploration company. And although at week’s end the storm appeared to be blowing over, the armed forces of Greece and Turkey remained on top alert. Said Stephen Roman, head of the Toronto-based company at the centre of the crisis: “We knew that the Greeks and Turks had never worked out their problems, but we never expected this.”

The crisis arose out of plans by the North Aegean Petroleum Co., an international consortium 69-per-cent owned by Roman’s Denison Mines Ltd., to start drilling for oil in disputed waters east of the Greek island of Thásos. In response, the Turks last Friday ordered their scientific research vessel, the Sismik I, to sail under heavy naval escort to look for oil elsewhere in the Aegean, over which Greece claims exclusive rights. Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou immediately threatened to stop the Sismik by force if necessary. And Greek and Turkish forces went on a war footing, sending shock waves throughout the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to which both countries—though traditional enemies—belong. The crisis subsided only when the Turks, responding to allied pleas, ordered the Sismik to keep out of international waters. The expectation was that in return the Greek government would postpone the North Aegean consortium’s drilling operations off Thásos, which were to have begun by April 1 or 2. Said Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, on his way home from a visit to the United States: “We are waiting for the next move from them.”

The dispute between Greece and Turkey over the right to exploit the mineral resources of the Aegean has been simmering since the early 1970s. In a crisis similar to last week’s, the two countries nearly came to blows in 1976. Meanwhile, disputes over air traffic rights and the 1974 Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus have added to the tension. Animosity between Greeks and Turks originates from almost four centuries of Turkish rule in Greece, which ended in 1829 when the Orthodox Christian Greeks won their independence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The Aegean islands that hug the Turkish coast came under Greek rule after World War II, and Greece’s claim to a 12-mile limit around them is tantamount, in Turkish eyes, to declaring the Aegean “a Greek lake.”

Against this historic background, an atmosphere of war psychosis took hold in both countries as the crisis developed last week. Greece’s socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou— facing domestic trouble at home over soaring inflation and a land dispute with the powerful Greek Orthodox Church—rallied his nation with tough talk against the hereditary foe. “The military readiness of our country is able now to give [Turkey] a very hard lesson,” he said in a televised speech at an emergency cabinet meeting. He added that, if the Sismik started search operations in waters claimed by Greece, “we will hinder it, of course not with words.”

His speech was followed by a run on stores and supermarkets as Athenians stocked up on food and other essentials in anticipation of war. People also rushed to the banks to withdraw deposits. Meanwhile, with flags flying and a flotilla of warships around it, the Sismik set out from the Darda-

nelles port of Çanakkale and Turkey’s acting prime minister, Kaya Erdem, warned that Greece “will have to assume full responsibility” for whatever might occur if the two navies met head-on in the Aegean.

Elsewhere in the region, military tension mounted—especially along the Turco-Greek land frontier in Thrace, where the armies of the two nations exchanged fire in an incident o four months ago. There was renewed tension, too, in the digs vided island of Cyprus, where a Canadian infantry battalion is part of a 2,300-man United Nations peacekeeping force and where the government complained to the UN last Friday that Turkish air force jets had invaded Cypriot airspace. According to the authoritative London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Greek and Turkish navies are roughly

equal in strength, although the Turkish army —with 542,000 men—far outnumbers and outguns the 165,000strong Greek ground forces.

As the two navies sailed toward an apparent showdown, ambassadors of the 16member North Atlantic alliance met in emergency session in Brussels and NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington offered to mediate.

Carrington’s office in the NATO headquarters served as a crisis centre as the secretary general consulted separately with the Greek and Turkish ambassadors and other alliance officials. But in the event, friendly bilateral pressure from Washington appears to have induced the Turks to order the Sismik to remain in Turkish waters, defusing the crisis at least temporarily. Turkey’s decision to apply for full membership of the European Economic Community—made public just as the crisis receded on Saturday—may also have played a part in Ankara’s decision to moderate its stand.

While the Reagan administration kept a tight lid on leaks, a knowledgeable Washington source told Maclean's that Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger was directly involved in persuading the Turks to back off. “We are talking about carrots, not sticks,” the source added—apparently hinting that the Turks had been promised a reward in the form of the increased arms supplies they have been demanding in the face of objections from the influential U.S. Greek lobby. Because of congressional opposition, U.S. aid to Turkey this year will total only $767 million, compared with the $1.2 billion asked for by the administration. And when, on March 16, Turkey and the United States renewed a defence and economic aid agreement under which Turkey continues to allow important U.S. bases on its soil, the U.S. administration promised to make its “best efforts” to maintain aid levels.

In Athens, after an announcement of the Turkish decision to keep the Sismik out of disputed waters for the time being, Papandreou called a meeting of party political leaders, and expressed “reserved optimism.” He added: “It appears that we are moving toward a de-escalation of the crisis.” But in Brussels, NATO officials remained on edge. There was imprecise information about the exact whereabouts of the Greek and Turkish naval forces and one official said: “There is still a danger of hostilities

breaking out through miscalculation or a rash act if opposing forces draw too close to each other in the Aegean.” Meanwhile, in Toronto, officers of Denison Mines were facing not only the possibility of war over their consortium’s drilling contract, but the additional headache of a threatened Greek government takeover of what is one of the company’s most lucrative operations. Three weeks previously,

the Papandreou government had suddenly introduced legislation that would allow it to take a 51 percent interest in North Aegean Petroleum. That came as a bombshell to Denison Mines, whose share in the profitable Aegean oilfield had contributed significantly to its profits of $45 million last year, compared with a loss of $158 million the year before. Said Denison executive vice-president Charles Parmelee on Friday: “We did not get the slightest hint of a possible buy-out.”

Indeed, Greek officials had been assuring Denison that no nationalization plans were in the offing, said Parmelee. And it was only through newspaper reports that Denison and its U.S. and West German partners in the consortium learned that Greek Energy Minister Anastassios Peponis was drafting a takeover bill. Under the bill, Denison would be paid $33.8 million for its share. But Parmelee, who estimated that the consortium had invested $975 million to develop the Aegean field—which now produces 26,000 barrels a day—dismissed the offer as “a joke.” And Parmelee’s boss, Stephen Roman, told Maclean's, “The consortium is doing a tremendous job for Greece.” Meanwhile, he was waiting to hear whether the Greek government would hold the consortium to its agreement to start drilling in the contentious area east of Thásos by April 1 or 2. “We have no idea at the moment what will happen,” he said.




in Istanbul,


in Athens,


in Washington,


in Brussels and